Ilm al-Kalam

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ʿIlm al-Kalām (Arabic: علم الكلام‎, literally "science of discourse"[1]), usually foreshortened to kalam and sometimes called "Islamic scholastic theology", is an Islamic undertaking born out of the need to establish and defend the tenets of Islamic faith against doubters and detractors.[2] A scholar of kalam is referred to as a mutakallim (plural mutakallimūn) as distinguished from philosophers, jurists, and scientists.[3] There are many possible interpretations as to why this discipline was originally called "kalam"; one is that the widest controversy in this discipline has been about whether the Word of God, as revealed in the Qur'an, can be considered part of God's essence and therefore not created, or whether it was made into words in the normal sense of speech, and is therefore created.


The Arabic term kalam means "speech" and its use for the name of the Islamic theology has the root in the Quran which is the "Word of God" (kalām Allāh).


The discipline of Kalam arose in an "attempt to grapple" with several "complex problems" early in the history of Islam, according to historian Majid Fakhry. One was how to rebut arguments "leveled at Islam by pagans, Christians and Jews". Another was how to deal with (what some saw as the conflict between) the predestination of sinners to hell on the one hand and "divine justice" on the other, (some asserting that to be punished for what is beyond someone's control is unjust). Also Kalam sought to make "a systematic attempt to bring the conflict in data of revelation (in the Qur'an and the Traditions) into some internal harmony".[4]

As an Islamic discipline[edit]

Even though seeking knowledge in Islam is considered a religious obligation, the studying of 'Ilm al-Kalam is considered by Muslim scholars to fall under the category of necessity and is only permitted to qualified scholars, but not for the masses or common people.[5]

The early Muslim scholar Imam al-Shafi‘i held that there should be a certain number of men trained in kalam to defend and purify the faith, but that it would be a great evil if their arguments should become known to the mass of the people.[6]

Similarly, the Islamic scholar Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, held the view that the science of 'Ilm al-Kalam is not a personal duty on Muslims but a collective duty. Like al-Shafi'i, he discouraged the masses from studying it.[5]

The Hanbali Sufi, Khwaja Abdullah Ansari wrote a treatise entitled Dhamm al-Kalam where he criticized the use of kalam.[7]

The contemporary Islamic scholar Nuh Ha Mim Keller holds the view that the criticism of kalam from scholars was specific to the Mu'tazila, going on to claim that other historical Muslim scholars such as Al-Ghazali and An-Nawawi saw both good and bad in kalam and cautioned from the speculative excess of unorthodox groups such as the Mu'tazilah and Jahmites.[8] As Nuh Ha Mim Keller states in his article "Kalam and Islam":

"What has been forgotten today however by critics who would use the words of earlier Imams to condemn all kalam, is that these criticisms were directed against its having become 'speculative theology' at the hands of latter-day authors. Whoever believes they were directed against the `aqida or "personal theology" of basic tenets of faith, or the 'discursive theology' of rational kalam arguments against heresy is someone who either does not understand the critics or else is quoting them disingenuously."[8]

Major kalam schools[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Winter, Tim J. "Introduction." Introduction. The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. 4-5. Print.
  2. ^ Madeleine Pelner Cosman, Linda Gale Jones, Handbook to Life in the Medieval World, p 391. ISBN 1438109075
  3. ^ Clinton Bennett, The Bloomsbury Companion to Islamic Studies, p 119. ISBN 1441127887.
  4. ^ Fakhry, Majid (1983). A History of Islamic Philosophy (second ed.). New York: Columbia University Press. pp. xvii–xviii. 
  5. ^ a b Bennett, Clinton (2012). The Bloomsbury Companion to Islamic Studies. Bloomsbury Academic. p. 119. ISBN 1441127887. 
  6. ^ Black Macdonald, Duncan (2008). Development of Muslim Theology, Jurisprudence, and Constitutional Theory, Chapter=III. The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd. p. 187. ISBN 158477858X. 
  7. ^ Jeffry R. Halverson, Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam, 2010: p 37. ISBN 0230106587
  8. ^ a b

External links[edit]